Traditional Sports

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Although relatively unknown in the West, chinlone, Myanmar’s national game, enjoys a mass following in its homeland.  Fittingly for this Buddhist country, the game is essentially non- competitive: participants strive to pass a small cane ball to  each other using only their legs. Teams are graded according to how beautifully they play: the complexity and athleticism  of their moves, the quickness of their reactions, and the ele- gance of their posture. The same emphasis on looking good  applies to Myanmar’s other favorite sport, lethwei (Burmese boxing), only here the desired outcome is a knockout blow. Together the two games represent the underlying duality of Burmese culture: cooperative passivity and steely aggression.


One of Myanmar’s defining eccentricities, chinlone is played with great passion across the country. The main aim is to keep the ball in the air for as long as possible, but play is also rated by the difficulty and execution of named, stylized moves.

Wein kat or team play

In its competitive form, chinlone is played by teams of six, who revolve around a central player, as seen in this match between the Myanmar and Cambodia women’s teams.

Chinlone moves

There are around 200 ways of kicking the ball, many of them inspired by martial arts and dance. The most highly rated are performed behind the back, without being able to see the ball.

The ball

Chinlone balls are woven from rattan and are fairly small,  measuring about 5 in (13 cm) in diam- eter. They are light and springy, but not  too bouncy, and therefore perfect for passing and trick moves.

Street chinlone

Chinlone is most often played for pure enjoyment wherever there is sufficient space, including streets, beaches, and riverbanks, such as this game by the side of the Ayeyarwady.


Kickboxing, or lethwei, is a martial art that has been practiced across Southeast Asia for centuries. Its modern form, in which a point system is used, arose in the 1950s. Before then, boxers would continue until one of them was knocked out.

Rules of lethwei

In this full-contact sport, fighters may use their  elbows, hands, knees, legs, feet, and even fore- heads. Moves range from jabs to round house  kicks that exploit the body’s rota tional movement to create greater impact.

Lethwei moves

Burmese boxers learn set moves designed to breach their adversary’s defenses, using different parts of the body, including elbow strikes, knee strikes, and elbow punches, the last being one of the most effective means of delivering a knockout.

Lethwei in history

Burmese boxing has been popular for centuries, with most villages staging their own matches. An image dated around 1892–6 shows lethwei fighters in an open-air sand pit, wearing only loincloths and a wrap of gauze on the hands, surrounded by a ring of spectators.

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